It ain’t preseason football if you ain’t watching a gigantic Australian science experiment stonewall backups you’ve never heard of.
With a roster mostly established coming into the 2019 NFL season, the Eagles aren’t the league’s most thrilling preseason watch. But I was interested in Jordan Mailata and Andre Dillard, the last pick from the 2018 draft and the first pick from the 2019 one, both elbow-jousting for spots on the Eagles’ tackle depth chart. Started at RT and LT respectively, they got the call over veteran Halapoulivaati Vaitai and higher-drafted Matt Pryor, giving the first glimpse of what could be the Eagles’ starting bookends in 2024.
From the 50,000 foot view, both players acquitted themselves well. Mailata proved much the same that he did in his first preseason as an Eagle: as long as he can get off the ball on time, he’s generally a difficult bloke to get around. Especially when faced up against second- and third-string rushers who lack the advanced technique or elite physical tools to challenge him, Mailata may lose reps, but he has the size and quickness to recover and keep his quarterback clean.
And Dillard? A strong outing for the Eagles’ 2019 first-round selection and the man designated to step into the biggest shoes on the Eagles roster: Jason Peters, the Bodyguard and franchise left tackle for Carson Wentz. Dillard looked much as you’d expect for a first-round pick, even when you consider that Dillard was billed as a bit of a project coming out of Washington State.
In general, the Eagles got better play out of their OT3 and 4 than most teams will during their preseason — and that’s only good news. Let’s power up the microscope and take a closer look at what the Eagles’ offensive tackles are doing well as they continue growing into the future of the offensive line.
Dillard and Mailata share a key and exciting trait: explosiveness. Working back into their kick-slide sets or upfield into the second level, both Dillard and Mailata are big men moving at high speeds. Against the Titans, OL coach Jeff Stoutland kept his two young tackles in deep vertical sets almost exclusively, which capitalize on their shared ability to cover ground quickly. They regularly beat Tennessee rushers to the corner and, especially in Dillard’s case, had time to relax and wait for the rushers to arrive.
The Eagles offense doesn’t rely on vertical sets exclusively in the regular season — Jason Peters and Lane Johnson shake things up with aggressive jump sets and other, less passive approaches. But Dillard is most comfortable in the deep-setting technique from his time in Washington State, and Mailata’s not really comfortable anywhere yet, so it’s unsurprising the Eagles kept things vertical on the offensive line.
On these deep vertical sets, it’s important to keep the door closed and control rusher’s paths — you don’t want to give them a “two-way go” by opening the hips too early and creating an inside rush lane. This is an important concept for Mailata, but Dillard’s proficiency here is already NFL-caliber. Shockingly nimble for a player of his size, Dillard’s ability to settle his hips and keep his weight balanced while mirroring rushers allows him to take those deep, long, patient vertical sets that force rushers to come to him, eliminating the potential for a quick win and instant pressure.
Mailata had some strong reps in pass protection as well, as we see above. With his size, Mailata struggles to settle his weight and sit back on his heels the way Dillard does, but his length is suffocating and his mass is such that, even when he’s initially displaced by power, he doesn’t surrender ground the way Dillard does (more on that in a bit).
I would call both of these tackles backup caliber in terms of their current play, with Dillard certainly earning the tag of potential starter — as you’d expect from most early-round tackle selections. Starting in Week 1 probably wouldn’t kill him or Carson; it just wouldn’t be ideal.
Mailata...yeah, it’d probably kill him.
As I said above, Mailata is less comfortable than Dillard is on these deep vertical sets — more specifically, he isn’t as patient in his feet. Mailata is long and explosive, which solves a lot of problems on the outside rush track — but he’s leaning so heavily on those physical tools that he’s falling into bad habits at the rusher’s peak.
Focus on Mailata’s feet. Watch how he stays parallel to the line and wide in the base on his initial kick-slide, then how his base narrows and his feet turn as the rusher approaches. Mailata cleaves to the outside shoulder of the guard, terrified of giving up a pressure in the B-gap. He knows that, on outside rushes, he’ll usually have enough length and strength and juice to tag the rusher’s inside shoulder and steer him beyond the drop of the quarterback.
It’s neither a bad nor an uncommon strategy used by bigger, lumbering tackles. But for Mailata, who is explosive and nimble enough to take EDGEs head-up in space, it illustrates technical concerns. Because Mailata is green at the position, he doesn’t have great recognition or recovery ability — and accordingly, he likely gets burned a lot by inside moves in practice and in drills. Those counters take advantage of his over-aggressiveness and lack of polish.
So he sits inside, insisting that the rusher comes to his outside shoulder, and then quickly flips his hips and bails to the outside arc to try and stave the rusher off. NFL first-teamers will be able to dip under his outside punch, or time their inside counter with that flip of his hips and the narrowing of his base, and punish him for his timid footwork on the arc.
With Dillard, the current issues aren’t in the feet — which are the objectively more important bit. They’re in the hands, and they have been for quite some time: at Washington State, when Dillard lost, it was to power that came directly into his chest. Dillard carries his hands as low as any offensive tackle I’ve ever seen, inviting contact directly into his chest plate and using his hands to re-set engagement instead of, you know, initially setting the engagement. It’s worth remembering that Dillard barely slid by the floor of OT arm length conventions in the NFL Draft at 33 1/2”; he is not long.
The low hands don’t cause too many problems for Dillard, at least after one half of preseason play. Dillard takes the initial shock of the bull rush, has tremendous lower body flexibility and hip coil to re-build his house and drop an anchor, and then activates his hands to break his opponent’s grip or work to a stalemate.
There’s no real reason for Dillard to keep his hands so low. The only thing I can think of is he’s preventing himself from playing too far over his toes and leaning into contact, and it’s true — that’s far from a problem with Dillard — but I think the ground he gives up against power rushes is worthy of note, especially when you start thinking about the shorter and more aggressive sets he’s going to incorporate into his game.
Dillard’s lack of upper body length and strength also show up in the running game, as we expected. Unaccustomed to firing off the ball given the Air Raid system deployed at Washington State, Dillard is yet ineffective at generating initial rolling displacement with his pads, and lacks the torsion strength you’d like to see on down blocks and reach blocks. He is a body in the way more than he is a force in the running game.
This, much like the low hand carriage, is both not ideal and fine. Dillard also has some reps already in which he is low and disruptive off the ball. These technical improvements will come with time, as he adjusts from an extreme college system to a more traditional NFL approach. Dillard’s ideal situation in the NFL kept him on the bench in Year 1 accordingly; his fit with the Eagles was the best he could ask for on Draft night.
There is absolutely no ugly for a preseason game, which is a big deal. (Though Mailata did forget a snap count again, which isn’t great.) Again, the OT3 and 4 play the Eagles got on Thursday night against the Titans is some of the best second-team OT play you’re going to find at the NFL level — and these aren’t veterans. They are athletic young players who are in the best OT developmental environment (veterans + coaching + system) the league could concoct. The future is bright for Mallard.
That’s Mailata + Dillard, the hottest new power couple of Eagles preseason football.